Soldier of Misfortune
Three years ago, Paul Reuben went off to Iraq—not as a member of the U.S. military, but as a highly paid private security guard. after he was captured by Iraqi insurgents, his family realized the true cost of that decision.
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RESPONSE TO NEWS of the incident wasn’t entirely sympathetic. The popular perception of private security contractors is that of latter-day mercenaries drawn to a war zone by a mixture of greed and bravado. It is true that the men were there at their own initiative. But it’s also true that the industry owes its existence to U.S. policy. In 1991, an estimated 9,200 contractors participated in the first Gulf War. By January 2008, estimates of the number working at any given time in the Iraq war ranged up to 160,000.
Those numbers reflect a chronic troop shortage. But they also speak to a mantra of privatization. The rationale is that it’s more cost-effective to pay a premium to private contractors to swab latrines, dish out pizza and tacos, guard diplomats, and rebuild Iraq’s pulverized infrastructure, than it is to maintain a large peacetime military.
Of course, the military answers to an elected commander in chief and to U.S. law. And in theory, it takes care of its own. None of this is true of private war-zone contractors. The House of Representatives has passed
legislation to make the industry more accountable—both financially and in its conduct toward its employees and the Iraqis they encounter—but the measure has yet to come to a vote in the Senate.
Kidnapping or taking a U.S. citizen hostage is a federal crime—the purview of the FBI, and subject to prosecution in an American court. According to Patrick Reuben, Paul told Crescent that Patrick was his next of kin. And so in the days after the abduction, it was Patrick whom the FBI approached to ask for Paul’s personal items so they could have a record of his DNA. They told him to call with questions.
Because its investigation into the abductions is still open, the FBI can offer only the most general comment, says Special Agent E. K. Wilson of the agency’s Minneapolis office. “We have agents on the ground in Iraq and we continue to work this as a priority matter…in coordination with the U.S. military, the U.S. Department of State, and Iraqi security forces,” he says. “As far as the role of the local office, the FBI is sympathetic to the strains that the family has been under and the ordeal they’ve gone through, and we’re here to function as a liaison between the FBI and the family.”
In the past in situations like these, folks back home had little choice but to wait and worry. But cell phones, the Internet, and the 24-hour news cycle have made the world smaller, and the families of the missing Crescent guards quickly realized they were getting less information from the FBI than from the men’s comrades.
A few days after the abduction, one of Paul’s friends sent Patrick a copy of Andy Foord’s written report of the abduction. Patrick called the FBI. “I said, ‘Hey, I got this report and you all aren’t talking to me.’” He says the agent’s response was to demand to know where he’d gotten the document.
The problem for Reuben’s family soon became not a dearth of information, but a glut of it. They were inundated with rumors, hypotheses, and first-hand information—with no way to test their veracity. On November 22, 2006, for example, the British staged an “airmobile force” raid on a police station where they believed the men were being held. Two Iraqis were killed in the operation, but the hostages didn’t turn up.
Back home, the hostages’ families were flooded with reports. There was a rumor that the captors had killed one of the guards, an Austrian, Bert Nussbaumer, as they fled the police station with the other four. That turned out not to be true, but it contained enough details to be plausible. Similarly, they heard that the men had been taken out into the desert and killed in reprisal for the raid, that the insurgents targeted Crescent because it hadn’t paid its Iraqi guards and because it owed money to the Iraqi police.
One of Reuben’s buddies finally pushed through a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the raid. In response, he was sent a copy of a British intelligence report quoting sources saying the hostages were initially taken to Safwan, the border town where the ill-fated mission had started and where several of the stolen vehicles had turned up. From there, they were thought to have been split into two groups and moved to Basra, some 28 miles to the north. Then they were supposedly moved frequently: a mosque, a tomato farm, possibly to the Border Police Customs House.
In December 2006, a few weeks after the abduction, the captors released an audio recording of the men asking their relatives to repudiate the war. Another video, this one made the day after Christmas, followed in early January. “I’m 39 years old, or 40; I’m not quite sure of today’s date,” Reuben told the camera. (His birthday was eight days after the kidnapping.) “I’m from Buffalo, Minnesota. I’m married. I have twin daughters, they’re 16. And I have a stepson that’s 16.” His tone of voice was flat but, like everyone but Cote, he appeared unharmed. In the video, the National Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a group unheard of before or since, took responsibility for the kidnappings.
The communiqués gave the families hope. Sometimes kidnappers wanted to ransom the trucks and drivers back to the security contractors who employed them. Sometimes, they wanted media attention for their cause. In either case, as long as the kidnappers wanted something, they would keep the men alive, the Reubens figured.
In February 2007, the State Department started holding weekly Monday afternoon conference calls with all five families. Not long after, Paul’s wife, Keri, demanded to be the sole Reuben participating, according to the rest of the family. Yet Jen had developed strong ties to the parents of another captive, Josh Munns, so she was able to get a full report after each call. Like Paul and Patrick, Jen had a degree in law enforcement. Before she and Patrick had kids, she worked as an investigator for a law firm. She kept a meticulous log of everything she heard. “I took notes on envelopes, paint chips, whatever was at hand when the phone rang.”
In March, the families learned that U.S. troops had raided a house and found a piece of paper with the captives’ names on it, save Young’s. The name of Ronald Withrow, a private contractor captured at a fake checkpoint near Basra a month earlier, was also on the list. Other than that, there wasn’t much out there. “Basically, it was the same old stuff: ‘We’re working on it,’” says Jen. “Nothing specific.”
The conversations with the FBI were even more frustrating. Every family got different information, so they began to compare notes: “We would try to fill in the gaps,” says Jen. “We would take all of the information and put it together the best we could.”
In April, relations between the Reubens and the FBI seemed to break down completely. The agents seemed irritated that the family had independent sources of information. In particular, they warned them about their involvement with a local man, Mark Koscielski, who had offered to help them.
The owner of a south Minneapolis gun shop, Koscielski does business with a lot of Twin Cities cops. He knew both Reuben brothers, and he had their mother in a firearms-safety class about a year before the abduction. A one-time candidate for mayor, Koscielski was also an anti-tax activist, and an energetic conceal-and-carry campaigner. After the kidnapping, he put up a website called Save5.net.
Almost immediately, he says, he began hearing from friends and colleagues of the Crescent crew. “Things started to roll in via FedEx, mail, e-mail, and phone calls,” he says. “It got to the point where I had all this information, and it didn’t look good.”
In late March 2007, Koscielski bought himself a ticket to Kuwait and lined up appointments with his new contacts. By the time he got there, he says, word had gotten around. There was a message waiting at his hotel from Franco Picco, the owner of Crescent. Picco sent a car, and the two men ended up talking for hours at the villa where the guards had lived. On his last day in Kuwait, Koscielski had several hours to kill at the airport, so he stopped anyone he could find who looked Western and showed them the Crescent guys’ photos.
Koscielski’s involvement created a divide among the hostages’ families. Some, Jen Reuben among them, wanted to tell him to get lost. They had no proof that he actually knew anything about the kidnappers, much less what would offend or persuade them, she argued. Plus, she worried the families might not be hearing much from the FBI because the agents didn’t want an amateur involved, potentially mucking things up. (About this, too, Special Agent Wilson can offer only a general comment: “We try to discourage any such action that would put private citizens in harm’s way in efforts to rescue overseas hostages or obtain information on their behalf.”)
Others had the opposite view. The families felt as if they’d been strung along for months, hope dimming all the while. Koscielski knew things, things that turned out to be true. His stories were sometimes fantastical—he hints darkly that the U.S. government had reasons to want the men to stay missing—but they were consistent. And at least he was doing something.
In May, three U.S. soldiers were kidnapped in a rural area south of Baghdad. The military swung into action, sending 4,000 troops who would “not stop searching until we find our soldiers,” Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver told the Associated Press. A $200,000 reward was offered for information on their whereabouts.
The guards’ families were incensed. “Right off the bat, they were out looking for them and offered a reward,” complains Jen. When private citizens are abducted, U.S. policy is to ignore ransom demands, and to distance themselves from cases where civilians choose to negotiate. She says the FBI went even further in the case of the Crescent men: “We were told if we offered a reward we would be prosecuted for paying terrorists.”
The five families had developed an informal majority-rules system for making decisions, and the May episode galvanized support for Koscielski. They had been pressing the State Department for months to have thousands of leaflets offering a reward air-dropped over three cities in southern Iraq. Koscielski proposed an end-run on the feds. They’d taken four months to do what the local Kinko’s could do in two days, he argued. So he organized a pancake breakfast fundraiser in St. Louis Park.
A month later, in August, Koscielski asked the families for $38,000 for one of his contacts in Kuwait. The money would pay for some information, and to cover the cost of air-dropping fliers throughout the region where the men were supposedly being held. Koscielski is adamant that none of the money went into his pockets. Even his detractors in the Reuben clan believe that to be true. They were not so sure his overseas contacts were as scrupulous, however.
Among the families, though, the majority thought that trying something was better than doing nothing. But no one could afford to contribute. Keri Johnson-Reuben had quit her job as a Hennepin County juvenile probation officer, too stressed out to work. Without child support, Kathy Reuben was having a hard time supporting Bree and Casey. Right after the kidnapping, Crescent sent Keri $3,500—two weeks’ pay—but then nothing. Paul wasn’t known to be dead, so there was no life insurance, just $36,000 from a state crime victims’ compensation fund that both families had to share.
Kathy read the newspaper every day looking for ideas. She tried to get child- support enforcement to go after Crescent, but the company shut down shortly after the kidnapping. “I visited military family support sites, but most just offered to do yard work or other volunteer help,” she says. “Some you could call for groceries, but some said no, because Paul wasn’t in the military. It’s embarrassing.”
Despite a second trip, this one to Jordan, Koscielski’s scheme to leaflet Iraq never got off the ground. In retrospect, the entire crazy episode makes a certain kind of sense to Jen Reuben. The hostages, she notes, had wives, ex-wives raising their kids, long-divorced parents, and checkered pasts that propelled them into the war: “How do you expect five families to come together and do something right?”
Jen had a vivid memory of watching American Terry Anderson’s release after years of captivity in Lebanon on TV. She always thought Paul’s sunny personality would insure that he was one of those few hostages who made it home. “I had these blinders on. I thought, he was such a nice guy. He gave money to the [Iraqi] kids, he was good to everyone. So I had this little story in my head about how he was just bored, he was just waiting for them to come get him. I kept saying, ‘He is going to come home and be the man he always wanted to be. He would take care of his girls.’”
IN MARCH, someone delivered five decomposing fingers to U.S. officials in Baghdad. Four of the fingers belonged to the Crescent crew. “I was like, okay, this is either a really good sign because the message could be: We still have them and we want something,” Jen recalls. “Or it could be: Stop looking for them because they’re gone.”
The next morning, Jen and Patrick’s 3-year-old woke with a nightmare, screaming that someone was cutting things off of her hands. In the pit of her stomach, Jen concluded the grisly dream was bad news. Over the past 16 months, she had steadfastly insisted to Bree and Casey their dad was coming home. Now she couldn’t. “I had to switch and say, ‘He always loved you guys.’”
The girls considered the episode a bad sign, as well. “I thought, He’s done, that’s it,” says Bree. Days later, the contractors’ buried bodies were unearthed in different graves near Basra, where they had been taken.
Bree, Casey, and Keri went to the airport to meet the plane that carried Paul’s body home. They were directed to a hangar. Bree couldn’t stand to get out of the limo. “I felt like I was hanging off a high building,” she says. “You know how you’re so scared you can’t move? I thought I wasn’t going to get my breathing back. I thought I was going to pass out.”
By contrast, Casey couldn’t stand not to go into the hangar: “There was a cardboard box. They opened it up and they were going to put the flag on his left shoulder. So they lifted him up. I just saw this black plastic bag. He was curled up, rigid, and he was so skinny.” Six men in Navy uniforms loaded the body into a hearse.
It’s still not clear how Reuben was found or by whom, but Casey recalls someone at the hangar saying he was in the fetal position because he had been buried upright. He was barefoot, dressed in a Lakers jersey and sweatpants. He was carrying half a pack of Iraqi Marlboros, something that comforts Casey: “You know, at least he was still smoking.” Later, the girls got the things from Reuben’s room at Crescent’s Kuwait City villa. His olive green toiletry kit still smells of soap and aftershave.
Before Reuben’s body was flown to Minneapolis, an autopsy was performed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The exam revealed that he was missing two fingers. One stump was fully healed, the other was fresher. He’d been beaten, most likely by the butt of a rifle. There were deep gashes in his right shin and numerous broken bones. His eyes and nose were missing, probably the work of animals.
LOOKING BACK OVER HER NOTES and e-mails, Jen Reuben believes she has sorted fact from speculation. “I really don’t think the guys were meant to die. Why would you release audio, video, fingers if you didn’t want something?” she asks. “I think something went wrong.”
Whatever the kidnappers’ plan, it went wrong nearly immediately, she thinks. Their plan in ruins, she has decided, the insurgents sold the Crescent guards to someone else who made and bungled a second attempt at ransoming them. Whoever had them one year after the abduction gave up and killed them. It’s as close to an answer as the Reubens have gotten.
Bree and Casey are 18 now, with high cheekbones, big dark eyes, and their father’s imposing height. They have Paul’s pension and, finally, some life-insurance money, so they have modest options. But neither has recovered enough to start thinking about what they want to do. Without a solid understanding of what happened, they’re having a hard time moving on. “I want to know who found my dad in that hole? How did they find him?” says Casey. “I feel like I deserve to know all of that stuff no matter how horrible it is. I want to look at the man who killed my dad and say, ‘Why? What purpose did that serve?’
“There’s just so much stuff that’s unsaid,” she continues. “There’s just so much unfinished business, so many things I want to know, so many things I want to ask him. I’m still waiting for him to come home. He’s still not dead for me. Having those answers would do it. It would be real to me.”
Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.